Scottish independence

Objections to the idea of Scottish independence have tended to fall into two distinct categories of late.  We are either told that "independence" (invariably in inverted commas) will be so similar in practice to the status quo as to be quite literally pointless, or else that "separation" (rarely in inverted commas even though it ought to be) will constitute a terrifying, earth-shattering change.

Self-evidently, each set of objections is utterly incompatible with the other set, but that doesn't stop both of them being raised by exactly the same people, and sometimes in exactly the same sentence.  Life isn't fair, though, and I don't expect anyone to force the No campaign to make up their minds any time soon.  Pro-independence advocates will simply have to carry on making the case that, yes, independence will entail enough change to make the undertaking worthwhile, but no, it won't be the end of civilisation as we know it either.

I'm not sure that's quite as difficult a balancing act to pull off as some would like to think. The middle ground between the two extremes that our unionist friends are presenting us with is wider than the Andromeda nebula.

One thing that might help is to consider what type of change the electorate is, or ought to be, frightened of, and what type of change they would warmly embrace.  It should also be remembered that, while a No vote would entrench the constitutional status quo, it certainly wouldn't entrench a far more important status quo. 

Due to the direction of government policy, we know that a decision to remain in the United Kingdom would subject Scotland's citizens to an ongoing revolutionary change in their relationship with the state.  That change would be utterly alien to the social democratic values of this country.  So it is entirely within the rights of the Yes campaign to point out that potentially frightening change is not the preserve of any one outcome in the referendum.

We don't even need to look into a crystal ball.  The ground is already quaking beneath the feet of tens of thousands of largely unsuspecting Scots, as a direct result of our continuing membership of a state with an increasingly right-wing political culture.  I recently had the dubious privilege of reading the standard letter that is sent out to claimants of Incapacity Benefit, when it is their 'lucky' turn to face the delights of the assessment for the shiny new Employment and Support Allowance.  My blood boiled as I read it, not because I learned anything that I didn't already know, but because I realised that most people who find themselves reading it will not learn a great many things that they desperately need to know.  An honest letter would read something like this:

"The government needs more money, and because of its conservative values has decided to raise that money from sick and disabled people, rather than from the rich and powerful.  Consequently, it has been decreed that the definition of the word 'illness' will be changed.  This means that even if you were ill enough to receive Incapacity Benefit, you probably won't be ill enough to receive Employment and Support Allowance.  And even if you are just about ill enough for ESA, it's probably best not to get complacent about it - we reserve the right to keep changing the definition of 'illness' until we claw back enough money.  Oh, and by the way, unlike your previous assessments, this one won't be carried out by a proper doctor, so your entitlement to benefit probably won't be decided by medical factors at all, but rather by more objective factors such as whether you are the seventy-eighth or seventy-ninth person to walk into the room that day, or whether the Atos assessor likes your haircut."

By contrast, the actual letter treats the recipient to a masterclass in the Orwellian use of words like "opportunity" and "help".  While many sick and disabled people stay in touch with the news, many others don't, and I'm quite sure that most recipients of the letter are left with the innocent belief that they are merely being notified of a modest change, and one that might even provide them with long-overdue support in achieving their goal of finding suitable work.  And yet the people who send out the letter know perfectly well that in the majority of cases it is, in reality, the start of a process that will lead to the claimant having their benefit withdrawn, entirely arbitrarily, within a matter of a few short weeks.  If you've ever wondered what 'cynical' means, I think that just about covers it.

London Labour started the process of welfare 'reform', and the London Tories put it on steroids.  Now even the London Lib Dems have branded themselves 'the party of welfare reform' and have belatedly discovered the immense fun that can be had by demonising society's most vulnerable.  There is quite simply no way out of this hell-hole for Scotland as part of the UK.  The only escape route is to opt out of the London game altogether.

Is a more humane approach to welfare reform - one that is driven by the best interests of the sick and disabled, rather than by the amount of money that can be squeezed out of them - a change that the Scottish electorate would fear or embrace?  My guess is the latter, but others will beg to differ.  There are, after all, plenty enough Scots who blame society's every ill on "Daphne taking five years off work because she's feeling a wee bit depressed".

That's a question for another day, though.  The point is that this is one of the many genuine dividing lines in the referendum.  The next time anyone tells you that the planned retention of the pound and the monarchy under independence means that the referendum is a pointless debate about flags and anthems, just remember that the basic decency of our society will be on the ballot paper in 2014.

This article was updated November 30, -0001 00:00 AM
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